"Okay, but this time really try to jump!" he said to me after my first attempt at the vertical jump test.
I was 15-years-old and trying out for a hockey team. It was during the fitness testing portion of the tryout that the coach running the station had just unknowingly hit me with a cold truth:
I was a bad athlete.
Despite a summer of hard training, my explosive abilities were so bad that the only conclusion one could take away from watching me jump was that I must have been warming up.
Looking back, I think being tall might have been my lone athletic gift. I've always been slow and lanky, the kid with the thick ankles and small shoulders. I could pass off as athletic looking with a hoodie and sweatpants, but anything less would reveal a mushy chest and soft knees.
Running was my personal version of hell. Chin-ups were just an impossibility. I think I was decent at sit-ups, but that might have been as close as I came to anything respectable. I even flunked the sit-and-reach on that goddamned Presidential Physical Fitness Test.
But of course, you can progress a lot with training, even with a shitty set of genes. Like many coaches I grew into my profession out of failure and frustration with my own inabilities, and I eventually figured a few things out.
So when I squatted 405 pounds 14-years later, that was a big deal.
And although I was happy with what I had accomplished, the training was brutal and my body felt like shit.
My knees were stiff in the morning. I was fighting a biceps tendon irritation. My cardio was so bad that any physical exertion lasting more than 20-seconds left me gasping for air. And I had ballooned up to 240 pounds, since anyone that lifts will tell you, mass moves mass.
Maybe I could have still reached 405 if I had slowed down and grown into my strength at a more reasonable pace. Perhaps I could have stretched a little more, gone for a few bike rides, or not eaten so many chocolate covered almonds. I don't know. But I had spent the last two years really hammering towards that goal. And achieving it, while great, forced me to sit back and reconsider a few things.
First, where did this goal even come from?
For those of you not attuned in gym culture, the significant strength milestones for a lifter typically coincide with the number of 45-pound plates on the barbell. 225, 315, 405, and 495 pounds all equate to two, three, four, and five plates (aka wheels) on each side of the bar.
Silly? Arbitrary? Childish? Definitely. But I don't make up the rules.
And so on the day that I finally graduated from three wheels to four on the back squat, a feat that put me in the elite category of "above average", I paused to ask myself why this was so important.
The trouble was, I didn't know. I just wanted to be strong. Whatever that meant.
Honestly, because it was badass was about the best I could do to explain my strength goals.
People that work out tend to do this a lot. We set arbitrary measures of achievement for ourselves that come in many forms. Many women I know want to get that first chin-up, lots of guys chase the elusive 225 pound (there it is again) bench press.
It's fun to work towards a goal. After all, we're not athletes any more. Nike isn't calling for sponsorship deals. No one's worried about the Russians. Our real athletic dreams have long since passed. So why not just point to a random piece of gym equipment and declare battle?
I guess it's just a fun distraction from the truth that for many of us, training is more about health and vanity than it is performance.
All of this contemplation brought me to one of the smartest training decisions I've made in the past several years: to let go of my aimless pursuit of strength.
I saw the writing on the wall. I knew that to continue to progress, I would need more. More training, more food, more time.
For some--hey, the world is your oyster. Go for it. Honestly, I admire that kind of dedication.
For me, I realized that I was lifting more to impress others than for my own sense of fulfillment. I think a lot of it had to do with insecurity.
Deep down, I knew I was a bad athlete and I was scared to admit it. I felt that by becoming a 400-pound squatter, people would take me more seriously and not see me for the soft-kneed dough boy that I really was.
While a high-level of strength probably would have garnered me more attention and a little more street cred in the gym, I felt like I was starting to sacrifice the other aspects of training and healthy living that I also advocate to athletes and clients.
I just became less and less okay with the lack of balance in my life. While getting strong is one of the healthiest things someone can do for themselves, there's a point where more strength does not necessarily equal more health, in fact it works against it.
Today, I still lift. But I don't follow a program or regimen. There are basic movements that I will always practice and touch on, but I no longer keep detailed excel spreadsheets of my strength status. I lift when I feel like it. I lift because its fun and because it supports and enhances my life.
For me, I'm strong enough. I don't carry that need to be stronger than every athlete I coach like I once did...until the day comes where can't even squat two wheels. Then fuck all the stuff I just said because that's bullshit.
I mean, ya gotta have a little self-respect.